It was gratifying to see a full Royal Albert Hall for Semyon Bychkov‘s guest appearance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – more so as the programme included one of the most successful concertos of recent times.
Magnus Lindberg has emerged as a composer of real stature, and every concert performance of his music feels like the passing of an important event. The Clarinet Concerto was here played by its dedicatee, the composer’s close friend Kari Kriikku.
Kriikku played with an astounding athleticism, but the piece was never virtuosic in an empty sense, as every gesture contributed towards the whole. The principal melody, initially elusive, took hold through development as the music surged forward, with Lindberg’s characteristic depth of sound moving the very foundations of the Albert Hall.
And when Kriikku had negotiated a fiendish cadenza, improvising on the earlier themes, the emphatic conclusion in C major took all before it. A measure of the success of this performance could be taken from the rapt silence during the cadenza, the audience held by every note, however quiet – though one wag decided he would voice a disrespectful opinion to the contrary when the piece ended.
It was interesting to compare Lindberg’s broad approach to orchestration with that of the early Stravinsky, whose Scherzo Fantastique provides many clues for further development in its radiant wind writing and luminous strings. The piece was as weightless as Bychkov’s baton, the conductor seemingly floating the stick on air yet securing a clearly discernable meter.
The Scherzo comes only a year after Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, and the contrast was an effective one. Bychkov’s detailed conducting continued to impress, as did the ensemble of the BBC SO, and as they responded to some unusual demands in rubato – particularly in the first movement – the feeling was that conductor and orchestra had reached common ground on their interpretation.
Structurally the Second can defeat or baffle even the most top rate of conductors, so it was comforting that Bychkov seemed to have very firm ideas about how this should evolve. The gorgeous Adagio, though slow, brought lovely playing from Richard Hosford‘s clarinet, and was a chance for the audience to indulge. The finale, in these hands, was a true victory, reflected in the warm applause the orchestra gave their guest.
A fitting end to a two week period where the BBC orchestras’ strength in depth has been reaffirmed, a complete rebuttal for those who believe the cream of the Proms is saved until the closing weeks.